First impressions: not as bad as some of the other reviews I’ve seen made it out to be, but this was not a great movie. However, it was competently made, the acting is good on everyone’s part and David Yates keeps a steady hand in moving the story forward and providing some truly breathtaking cinematography.
Without getting into spoilers, The Legend of Tarzan takes two completely fictional characters, Lord John Clayton (aka Tarzan) and Jane, and sets them into a true historical setting of the Belgian Congo in the late 1800s, a period when the atrocities against the native black population of the Congo were indeed being committed in order for the Europeans to profit from ivory, rubber and slaves. I did some reserach on this after I watched the movie and yeah, the history of this place and time is truly horrible.
The movie has this historical context, but it is a Tarzan movie. And Tarzan is basically a superhero if you go back and look at the original literature. He was setup to be something of the ideal man from a 1912 perspective, and Alexander Skarsgaard’s abs are certainly as impressive as Tarzan’s physique was supposed to be according to Edgar Rice Burroughs. They did find the right guy to play Tarzan and I will say that he does a good job of it both in the English city setting as well as out in the jungle when his shirt inevitably comes off and those chiseled abs come out.
However, even for a superhero, this movie takes it unrealistically too far, especially when we get to the third act where he’s calling on all these various incompatible species of animals to take out the bad guys. If only something like that had really happened, the bloody history of the Congo could have been quite different.
From that perspective, what this movie shows you is historical revisionism on the same order as Inglorious Bastards, where Hitler and his whole crew burn alive in a movie theater at the end. Coincidentally, Christoph Waltz was in that one too.
Jane is played with some real spirit by Margot Robbie and I’ve got no complaints about her performance. It definitely captures the essence of what Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Jane. In the novels she started out in the classic damsel in distress but she evolved into a fully capable and educated woman who defended herself and survived in the jungles of Africa quite well. You certainly do believe that from Robbie’s portrayal of her here.
George Washington Williams played by Samuel L. Jackson was a real person. Gets rather short shrift in the movie compared to his real life exploits. What would be fascinating is to see a movie about this guy!
Captain Leon Rom played by Christoph Waltz was a real person and they actually tame him down quite a bit from the monster he was in real life. He was apparently the inspiration for the Belgian ivory trader Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which in turn inspired Apolacalypse Now. I don’t think Christoph Waltz knows how to do bad acting, so he’s always impressive to watch, but I think they missed some opportunities here to show how horrifically awful Rom actually was.
I’ve seen some reviewers talk about the evils of colonialism and how the movie portrays the white people going in and saving the blacks, and how they are portrayed as not being able to save themselves without Big Mr White Man swinging in to save the day. I’m not really big on the extreme liberal idea of hating white people now because of things our forefathers did in the past which we can’t do anything about, but in this case I have to say that there is a valid point here. The real hero of this story should have been George Washington Williams, who in history actually did take real action that caused real change in the Congo by calling out the Belgian King Leopold for the atrocities he was allowing to go on under his rule of the Congo. Tarzan is the hero so he has to have the spotlight and Williams doesn’t exactly get sidekick status, but he’s definitely sidelined from how bad ass the guy was in real life.
The movie of course pays homage to the earlier Tarzan films as well, with Tarzan swinging around on vines and yelling his trademark call, neither of which have anything to do with anything Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote or any reality, since no African apes swing around on any vines, especially since those kind of vines don’t even grow on African trees! But yeah, it’s fun to watch.
All that being said, if you are in the mood for a sort of well shot, well directed adventure romp that tries in between the action to point out some actual historical facts about the damage white Europeans did in Africa, you’ll have a good time. If you are looking for a decently told Tarzan movie that is faithful to the spirit of Burrough’s books, you get that here too. So all in all, I give this an above average rating.